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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

MEDIA WATCH: Court Makes Sense on Press




There are times when court decisions do not seem to make sense to a layman. Remember the O.J. Simpson trial? The law is an arcane field in which professional battles professional these days, as opposed to right battling wrong. But Russian courts have recently made several decisions that make perfect sense to a non-lawyer, and both concern the media.


High-priced, high-powered lawyer Mikhail Barshchevsky, who had never lost a libel case before, did not save Anatoly Chubais from defeat at the hands of investigative journalist Alexander Minkin. Chubais sued Minkin for saying in an interview with Ekho Moskvy radio that the then-first deputy prime minister had accepted a veiled bribe from Uneximbank in the form of a $90,000 book advance from a publishing house associated with the bank.


No amount of clever legal maneuvering by Barshchevsky could alter the facts in the case. The book had not been written by the time the advance was paid; when pressed to do so, Chubais presented the court with a short manuscript that he said was his part of the book, but the manuscript did not contain any insights or sensational revelations that could be valued at $90,000; therefore, the money paid to Chubais was not really a book advance. It was not up to the court to decide whether it was a bribe, but the court refused to penalize Minkin for saying it was.


No one in his right mind would believe that Chubais was actually paid for his future literary efforts. Minkin, who is argumentative and opinionated, was not in this case going off on some tangent. He was talking from a position of common sense. The Presnya court, which threw out Chubais' case, rejected the theory that to be accused of bribery in the media, a person must first be convicted of it by a court of law. You might expect a judge to defend that theory because a judge is more likely to trust another judge's opinion than a journalist's statement. But Judge Irina Kupriyanova, like Minkin, clearly took a position of common sense. If a journalist can prove his accusations, there is no need to wait for a conviction before saying an official is corrupt.


Another Moscow court, which earlier this year dismissed former Justice Minister Valentin Kovalyov's suit against the monthly Sovershenno Sekretno, also rejected all sorts of filibustering by Kovalyov's lawyers. The former minister insisted on expert examinations of videotapes, stills from which the monthly had published, depicting Kovalyov frolicking with naked women in a sauna. According to the plaintiff, the tapes were computer montages.


Kovalyov is a lawyer, so he should know how to present a case in court and at least make life difficult for his adversaries. But the court refused to let him do that. It goes against common sense to imagine some mad scientist sitting in his laboratory generating computer images of Kovalyov chasing prostitutes. The scenes looked just too real.


And then last week another court said the daily newspaper Noviye Izvestia had to change its logo because the one it was using was too close in appearance to the one used by the daily Izvestia. Noviye Izvestia's management team consists of refugees from the "old" Izvestia, who had left the paper when it was taken over by Uneximbank and LUKoil. For some reason they decided they could take the logo with them and defend the move in court.


Noviye Izvestia's arguments would have convinced a newspaper designer.


These guys are sticklers for pixels, font sizes and margin widths. The logo, the paper's representatives said, used a font without serifs; it was also done in a different color, and the first and last letters of the word Izvestia were bigger than the rest. The judge, however, was not a newspaper designer. No one can deny, just looking at the two logos, that they are very similar. And that looked bad to the judge.


Of course, Chubais and Noviye Izvestia are appealing the court decisions.


Who knows what the higher courts will do. Defense lawyers say courts above the district level are more responsive to technical arguments. But I think we laymen have every reason to applaud the district judges who have made the decisions. I am not saying courts should base their decisions on common sense rather than law books. But I think in cases as obvious as the three we have discussed here, people who are clearly in the wrong should not have the sheer gall to sue or, in the case of Noviye Izvestia, let the case reach trial. They should have the courage to admit they've done something wrong. And they should apologize and accept punishment.